In one stroke, the BJP government decimated the pro-India constituency in Kashmir in early August when it ended, through the parliamentary route, Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. This was not just about downing the shutters of pro-India parties like the National Conference of the Abdullahs and the People’s Democratic Party of the Muftis, but about the many lakh Kashmiri Indians who had hitherto taken on the separatists and Islamists in their midst.
In my conversations earlier this month with ordinary people on the streets, officials, university researchers, policemen on duty and journalists in Srinagar and other parts of the Valley, the consensus was clear — India and being Indian have suffered a massive setback.
Since the boycott of the Lok Sabha elections in 1989, the Kashmir Valley’s troubles — firings and killings, stone pelting and hartals — had appeared to be a regular feature of life. But every phase had been different, allowing the continuing tragedy to take on new and more macabre faces each time. However, since Parliament voted to end the rights of Kashmiris over land and to allow migrants to buy land and settle there, a new and more dangerous phase of the tragedy began unfolding in the Valley.
Nothing normal in the Valley
For a reporter in the 1990s, the sound of firing in Srinagar or the massive deployment of security forces were part and parcel of one’s assignment. But nothing could have prepared me for the extent of deployment of paramilitary personnel across the length and breadth of the Valley today. Apart from the Army, the Central Reserve Police Force and the J&K police were deployed in numbers on the highways and streets of the Valley.
During a trip beyond Handwara to some villages in north Kashmir, I found that the deployment ended some 20 km outside Handwara town. Shops usually opened between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and were shut for the rest of the day. Private vehicles could be seen plying, but most commercial vehicles were off the roads. But this limited opening at a time when Internet services were suspended for more than 90 days could hardly be seen as a sign of normalcy. “There is nothing called normal in Kashmir anymore,” said one researcher at Kashmir University.
There had been fears of continuing (and violent) confrontation between the people and security forces; that has, mercifully, not happened. But the absence of continued large-scale protests should not be seen as a sign of acceptance or acquiescence to the Centre’s actions in diluting Article 370 and annulling Article 35-A.
Most Kashmiris were aware that successive governments had eroded Article 370 and only a shell had remained before the current decisions taken by the BJP government. What was of concern to the people now was that “outsiders” may be brought in and settled in enclaves by the government or be given jobs that were once reserved for the erstwhile State’s subjects. Such concerns were not restricted to the Valley; they extended to the Jammu region as well as Ladakh.
Kashmiris felt anger and contempt at pro-India politicians, including the Abdullahs and Muftis, who are currently under incarceration in hotels and houses in the Valley. The more conspiratorial of the Kashmiri people even believed that the mainstream politicians were aware of what the Modi-Shah combine had plotted for Kashmir, but others felt that this corrupt category of people had rightly been placed behind bars for their practices over the years. “I want these people behind bars [a reference to mainstream politicians] but on corruption charges, not under the Public Safety [preventive detention] Act,” said a serving government official in Handwara town.
Feeling let down
The feeling of having been let down, the feeling that constitutional guarantees could be easily diluted, make for an angry and sullen people. The slow approach of the Supreme Court to the habeas corpus cases filed post-August 5 made people question what democracy meant for them. “Our children can’t study without the Internet, GST returns can’t be filed since this is an online process. There is a problem even booking air tickets. But does anyone care?” a retired official wanted to know.
It is the separatists who have won the current propaganda war in Kashmir. Right from denigrating Sheikh Abdullah for going with India and, later, settling with Indira Gandhi in 1975, the separatists have always warned that New Delhi is not to be trusted. The erosion of autonomy has hugely boosted their agenda. It also holds out enormous potential for jihadi outfits to use in their pernicious plans to obtain new recruits.
“Article 370 was only skin with no flesh. Now, even the skin has been taken away from us,” rued a veteran journalist. “We have always spoken for India in Kashmir. Now, the very basis of our conversation has been snatched away.” Nearly everyone I spoke to was clear on one point: the people were in command. No one had given the call for a hartal on the days members of the European Parliament were flown in by the government to Srinagar — these things happened spontaneously.
Command over territory
There is no doubt now that India is in command of territory in Kashmir. Thirty years since the first bullet was fired by militant elements in the Valley, the counterinsurgency grid has been perfected by the state. True, the BJP government’s decision to end Kashmir’s special status was an ideological one, something that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had promised to the people of India. But this ideology and a pre-determined approach didn’t seem to have factored in the response of the Kashmiri people — other than denying them the tools to communicate and protest.
There is little doubt that most among the current crop of international leaders have little to say on the question of democratic rights, which is something that the BJP government has used to its advantage. Hence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments during a visit to Delhi should make the government sit up. “The situation now for the people [in Kashmir] is not good and not sustainable. This has to be improved for sure,” she said.
It’s quite possible that in the weeks and months ahead, some of the restrictions imposed on the Kashmiris may be relaxed. But the government is in no rush. Time is on its side, something that the Kashmiris too have figured out.
The core issue, really, is what kind of democracy India has become. Kashmir for India was always special, once a beacon for pluralism and accommodation in a diverse country. That plural approach now lies in tatters. The territory is ‘ours’, but the people are bitter, angry and alienated. Even words that can heal are missing from our lexicon. And the Kashmiris are smart; they know this.